Keanu Reeves returns to the big screen this weekend in the new science fiction flick Replicas. That film has Reeves playing a scientist crossing ethical boundaries to use cloning technology, or something of the sort, to bring back the wife and child he lost to a car accident. The premise is interesting and while the trailer leaves a lot to be desired and an attempt to pretend critics like it by boasting in ads about a “92%” rating on RottenTomatoes.com, the film has only one critics review, a negative review, in Spanish, only makes me more suspicious of the film’s quality.
That said, even if Replicas is a bad movie as my instincts are telling me, I won’t hold it against star Keanu Reeves. After all, there is still John Wick 3 to look forward to this year and an all new Bill & Ted movie that appears to have a clever revival idea behind it still to come. Most importantly, Keanu will always be Neo from The Matrix. The 1999 sci-fi action blockbuster The Matrix heralded the beginning of the end of the era when blockbusters based on original ideas were all the rage and visionary filmmakers with new ideas appeared to have a place in Hollywood.
That era is over, likely brought to the close by the very visionaries, The Wachowski siblings, whose film, The Matrix, became the last of the great original franchises. Big budget originals such as Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending may have been the death knell for any original, big budget adventure without a built in audience, comic book or novel behind it but I don’t hold that against The Wachowski’s. I may hate both of those original flops but at least they were trying something original and bold.
In the era of the remake, reboot or comic book based blockbuster originality needs to be cheered even when it fails spectacularly as The Wachowski’s recent features have. Honestly, we should have a GoFundMe campaign or create some sort of ‘Too Big to Fail’ scam in order to fool studios into thinking those failures were hits so people like The Wachowski’s can get more chances to create something as bold and original as The Matrix was in 1999.
The Matrix stars Keanu Reeves as a part time drug dealer and full time office drone living a mundane existence. I called him a drug dealer but his trade is more in outlaw software that has the effect of getting people high. Neo himself has no use for such thrills. His life is lived in the secret places of the internet where, as a hacker, he tracks the strange movements of a vigilante named Morpheus (Larry Fishburne) whose hacking skills have led to rumors even Neo can’t begin to make sense of.
One night Neo’s work catches the attention of Morpheus and his cohorts and they reach out via Morpheus’s second in command, Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss). Trinity warns Neo that ‘Agents’ may be on to him, a warning that Neo or Thomas Anderson in his world, fails to heed. At his office the next day, Neo is cornered by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) who threatens him if he won’t help the agents find Morpheus.
With the help of Morpheus, Neo makes a dynamic and improbable escape from the agents. When Neo meets Morpheus he is offered a choice that became and has remained a meme or metaphor for seeing the world in a different way. Neo is offered a Red Pill that will wake him up to The Matrix and reality and the Blue Pill which will allow him to remain in his current place in the world, ignorant of reality.
Neo, of course, chooses the Red Pill and soon awakens in a pod, naked and covered in goo. His brain stem has a plug in it and his lungs are being operated by a machine until he removes it in a scene of modest but highly effective body horror. Neo is picked up by Morpheus’s ship, the Nebuchadnezzar where he will recover and eventually be taught about The Matrix, the machine of which he was a prisoner.
In the real world, humans are batteries within a massive machine and reality is fed to them via the subconscious. To fight The Matrix, Morpheus and his crew hack the system and work to disassemble the machine from the inside, one part at a time. Morpheus believes Neo may be a mythical savior with the power to bend The Matrix to his will and bring an end to a war most of humanity doesn’t realize is being fought between man and machine.
It’s been nearly 20 years since The Matrix arrived in theaters and the film still feels like a fresh commentary on modern society. In fact, a coterie of conspiracy theorists believe that our reality is trending more toward a Matrix-esque reality due to our ever-growing dependence on the online world. Much like ‘The Red Pill’ has become a meme that has been co opted in myriad different metaphorical forms, the The Matrix itself remains a strong and singular commentary on modern society.
Part of what keeps The Matrix fresh is Keanu Reeves. While some consider Reeves’ blank slate performance to be flat and unaffected, I have always felt that the film effectively deploys Reeves’ perceived flatness. Reeves is a rather perfect audience surrogate. We can project upon his blank, open, face, our own personas and interpretations. Some might consider that a flaw in that he doesn't’t stand out and stand on his own but, for me, Reeves’ empty vessel quality is part of the film’s appeal.
Reeves is a terrifically physical actor whose wiry frame is not so muscular as to make him un-relatable but no so average that he isn’t believable as he transforms into a karate master in the world of The Matrix. Truly, Reeves is ideal casting for Neo as he can be what most of the audience wishes we were, a handsome, world saving, bullet dodging karate hero. If Reeves played the role with a great deal of charisma he’d risk standing apart from the audience rather than standing in for us.
While I wish Keanu Reeves had more movies like The Matrix on his resume than say, Destination Wedding or Replicas, at the very least he will always be our Neo, the hero so open to interpretation and impersonation that he is all of us and none us all at once. Will Smith was initially sought for the role of Neo as The Matrix was entering production but he would have been all wrong for it. Neo isn’t a quippy, believable, world-saving, comic book hero, he’s an Everyman and while Reeves may be super handsome, his blank slate has an every man quality that is iconically Neo from The Matrix.